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One of the few books – or objects of any sort – to come down to me from my great-grandparents is this battered copy of C.J. Dennis’s Songs of the Sentimental Bloke. Why did it survive when nothing else did? It’s not a signed copy, it’s not even a first printing, but an eighteenth impression from 1918. Like many Australians, my great-grandparents  would have loved this book during the war and perhaps that’s why it survived. As a kid, I remember my bewilderment at the cupid drawings and the impenetrable slang it is written in.

I dug it out from my bookshelf for the first time in many years because I’ve been reading Philip Butterss’s An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of C.J. Dennis. Published in 2014, it won the 2015 National Biography Award. I’ve just returned from Canberra where I had the chance to hear Butterss speak at a National Centre for Biography seminar.

Butterss’s biography covers the whole of Dennis’s life with a careful briskness and an admirable clarity. It’s a different kind of biography to what I’m attempting, perhaps more concerned with setting his work in the context of life and conveying information than weaving a narrative and creating scenes. That’s partly a consequence of its conciseness and scope; the author also mentioned to me the limited number of personal papers to draw on. The discussion of Dennis’s literary works are well integrated and gave me a good sense of his poetry. Butterss argues convincingly for Dennis’s significance to Australian literature while also demonstrating the limitations of Dennis’s work.

C.J. Dennis (1876-1938) was contemporaneous with Katharine Susannah Prichard, who was seven years younger. I was struck by some parallels and points of comparison.

  • Both had their first big success in 1915 during World War One, Dennis with the publication of Sentimental Bloke and Katharine with The Pioneers. Both books were popular works a long way removed from the war. Both writers had tribute dinners organised for them at Cafe Francais in Melbourne to celebrate their success a few months apart. It would be fair to say Dennis never developed far beyond what he achieved with that book, returning to the same characters and milieu in subsequent works with diminishing returns. Although Katharine’s breakthrough book sold well, it wasn’t nearly as successful as Sentimental Bloke, and it left her more incentive to develop as a writer.
  • While World War One radicalised Katharine, moving her to embrace communism, it shifted Dennis the other way. He’d been a radical and worked for Labor politicians, but he became quite conservative in his later years. In Butterss’ account, it was wealth and success more than the war which affected him. If The Pioneers had made Katharine a fortune, would it have affected her politics?
  • Both wrote in the Dandenongs east of Melbourne during the war. Dennis worked on Sentimental Bloke in Kallista in the early part of the war, while in 1918 Katharine wrote Black Opal 10km south of there in Emerald. This is why they appear together on this writers’ monument in Emerald. 20160115_125644
  • Both were journalists with strong ties to the Herald and Weekly Times – but while Katharine worked for the paper before the war, Dennis worked for it after the war.

I don’t yet know if they ever met, but they probably did. They at least had a number of associates in common, including Louis Esson, Furnley Maurice, and E.J. Brady.

I found particularly interesting the chapters in the biography on Dennis’s posthumous reception – his ‘afterlives’. I hadn’t realised that he is actually marginal in the Australian canon, his popular poetry not generally embraced by critics. His popularity has had its ups and downs over the decades, but more downs in recent years, light verse just not resonating with the reading public. However, the biography itself, the first full-length critical study, has ensured he is now better remembered a century on from his great success.